Today is Holy Monday, the second day of Holy Week. According to Mark 11:12-19, Jesus performed two significant actions on this day: he cursed a fig tree, and he cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem. Let us look at each action in turn.
First, Jesus cursed a fig tree.
According to Mark, “Jesus was hungry.” Because we read the Gospels from the vantage point of Easter, we often forget that Jesus was human. He suffered the same pains and pangs as we do. Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance and approached it in order to reap its fruit. Mark tells us, however, that “it was not the season for figs.” So Jesus’ hunger went unsatisfied.
What Jesus did next is a bit astonishing: He cursed an out-of-season fig tree for not bearing fruit. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Assuming that Jesus was an intelligent man and that he knew it was not fig season, why did Jesus curse the tree? Because he was trying to make a spiritual point to his disciples and through them to us!
What is the point? We must be prepared, in season and out of season, to minister to the pains and pangs of the hungry. Every day, the physically hungry and the spiritually hungry stand before us with their needs. There is no time to delay help. Now is always the right time to serve them. Unfortunately, on the first Holy Monday, Jerusalem was not ready to serve, either the hungry or their Master.
And that brings us to the second significant action: Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Jesus’ day, the Temple Mount contained a vast plaza, subdivided into several courtyards. The outermost courtyard was the Court of the Gentiles, which anyone from any nation could visit. In this courtyard, moneychangers set up table to exchange the world’s currencies for Temple currency, which was then used to purchase sacrifices. So much commercial activity took place in the Court of the Gentiles – and sacrifices were sold at such inflated prices – that no spiritual activity could take place in this court. So, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there” and “overturned the tables of the money changes and the benches of those selling doves.” It seems that this took place all day, for Mark goes on to note: “Jesus would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”
Jesus justified his action by quoting Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The larger context of this passage is a prophetic promise to non-Jewish people groups that God would save them, bring them to Jerusalem, and “give them joy in my house of prayer.” Jesus also cited Jeremiah 7:11, which refers to the Temple as a “den of robbers.”
There is a place for commercial transactions, of course. I don’t think Jesus meant to deny that. But the Temple was not a place for buying and selling, especially not when those activities hindered Gentile prayers.
As we reflect on these two significant activities – the cursing and the cleansing – we should come to see that they spring from the same motivation, namely, openness to God. If we are open to God, we will be prepared to meet the needs of the hungry among us, whether they thirst for bread or thirst for spirituality. And if we are open to God, we will create space where people can connect with him.
May our churches – both the people and the buildings – always be open in this way!